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Afghan peace tops army chief’s US visit agenda

Afghan peace tops army chief’s US visit agenda

ISLAMABAD: A new push for the resumption of stalled Afghan peace process looks imminent as Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif embarks on a five-day long visit to the United States.

“There is a visible possibility for a new push for resumption of the reconciliation process,” a senior official said in a background interview with Dawn on Saturday.

Afghanistan, sources confirmed, was at the top of agenda of Gen Sharif’s visit, which commences from Monday. The visit, according to a Washington-based source, is being attached “unprecedented” importance.

Gen Sharif would meet Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday (Nov 19). Meeting at this level is rare for any military chief visiting US.

Other meetings that Gen Sharif would have during his stay in Washington include Secretary of State John Kerry, Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen Joseph Dunford, Army Chief of Staff Gen Mark Milley and Director CIA John Brennan.

“Some of the most pressing issues for us in the region would be discussed during the meetings with Gen Sharif. Pakistan is an important ally and people at the highest level are involved in this trip,” a senior US official said.

Gen Sharif’s second visit to US in a year has drawn special interest because of the expectations being attached to a Pakistani role for restoring peace in Afghanistan. Pakistan had in July hosted the first round of peace talks between Afghan government and the Taliban, but the process faltered ahead of the second round planned for July 31 when it became public that Mullah Omar was no more alive.

The sharp rise in violence in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the breakdown of the dialogue and the re-emergence of mutual mistrust prevented any meaningful move towards the revival of the peace talks.

Lately, there has been a flurry of diplomatic activity to patch up the broken relationship between Kabul and Islamabad and start the peace move afresh.

Gen Sharif, according to a source familiar with agenda, would emphasise on US to guarantee that any resumed effort would not be torpedoed from the elements within the Ghani administration, who are opposed to the process.

Gen Sharif made the first attempt at starting the process in February, when he conveyed the Taliban’s willingness to talk to President Ashraf Ghani, but premature leaks by the Afghan establishment delayed the process by months. The second attempt was made in the second quarter and the first round held on July 7 went successfully, but again Afghan intelligence leaked the news about Mullah Omar’s death before the second round leading to its cancellation.

An agreement between the NDS and ISI too was foiled by anti-Pakistan element in Afghanistan. Gen Sharif, who was the architect of the reconciliation process, does not want a repeat of that. “We want other stakeholders (US and China) to play their part for the success of any resumed process,” the source said.

Chinese Special Envoy on Afghanistan Ambassador Deng Xijun, who last week visited Islamabad, had offered to facilitate the Afghan dialogue provided all stakeholders agreed.

Another senior Pakistani official said the renewed urge for a political settlement was visible in US because of the presidential elections there in November 2016. Therefore, the US would either like to see a revival of the peace process or ensure that at least there is no further deterioration in the security situation that could suggest that President Obama was leaving Afghan imbroglio unaddressed.

Developments in Middle East would also feature during Gen Sharif’s meetings, a source said.

About the help Pakistan needs from US for its counter-terrorism operations, a source said, Gen Sharif would call for controlling terrorist financing and better control with Afghanistan.

Published in Dawn, November 15th, 2015

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